It's been 30 years since Apple released one boldly innovative, still beloved product

(Image credit: Apple)

One of Apple’s most popular series of portable computers celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. It was an innovative device in some many ways that still hold up today.

It had 16-bit sound. It had a trackpad — now a staple of nearly every laptop computer. It had an ethernet port to enable high-speed connectivity. It even had celebrity endorsements in its TV ads. It was a phenomenon. An expensive phenomenon. But one none the less.

At the high-end it was priced at about $4,500.  Thirty years later, those prices would equate to $9,483. It  wasn’t a cheap laptop, but according to Cult of Mac, it was a “triumph on every level” and “packed with innovative features.”  

We're talking about the PowerBook 500 series, first launched on May 16, 1994, with the PowerBook 540c, a notebook computer deemed by many as the best laptop available at the time, with an unexpectedly high demand that resulted in shortages post-launch.

While the PowerBook 540c was wildly expensive in 1994, and its specs pale compared to modern laptops, the 540c model was a pioneering piece of technology that opened the door for innovations that would come in the decades to follow. 

It paved the way for today’s MacBooks by debuting many industry-first and PowerBook-first features.

Innovative specs and features of Apple’s PowerBook 540c in 1994

In the computer industry, the PowerBook 540c was the first to feature speakers with 16-bit stereo sound, a trackpad, an Ethernet port via AAUI, and “intelligent” NiMH batteries with on-board circuitry to monitor the battery’s health.

And for the PowerBook line specifically, the 540c was the first model to be equipped with a 33MHz Motorola 68LC040 CPU, which Cult of Mac says made it “impressively fast,” with speeds “80% faster than the speediest previous PowerBook” in benchmark tests.

While its speedy 68LC040 CPU and 4 - 36 MB of RAM facilitated excellent performance, the 540c’s shining feature was its 16-bit portable display, another world first, according to Cult of Mac. 

Apple claimed at the time that it “may well be the finest screen to ever grace a notebook computer,” with its 640 x 400 resolution and the active-matrix display able to show thousands of colors at once, that was probably a spot-on claim.

The 540c was also the first PowerBook to debut a full-size keyboard with function keys, two battery bays, and its CPU on a daughtercard, which allowed for PowerPC and 68040 upgrades. Inside, it packed a whopping 160 - 750 MB of storage space and ran on Mac OS 7.1.1 out of the box.

Despite being almost 30, the 540c still has dedicated fans today. 

Three years ago, @CraigLearmont posted his PowerBook 540c on r/Vintage Apple, which is still functional and running Mac OS 8.1 with a Big Sur desktop. 

Redditor @MrFahrenheit_451 commented that they also had one, and it was “really good for 68k-specific apps and games.”  

By the time the line was discontinued, almost 600,000 PowerBook 500 series units had been produced, double that of the previous PowerBook 5300 series. The 540c was officially discontinued on April 1, 1996, and succeeded by the PowerBook 190, but many of its features live on in modern MacBooks.

How Apple’s PowerBook 540c shows up in modern MacBooks

The same ambition we saw from Apple when creating the 540c is still present in 2023 MacBooks.

Apple’s recent MacBooks are missing the Ethernet port that debuted on the 540c. However, today’s MacBooks are still equipped with trackpads and stereo speakers, albeit with many upgrades, like haptic feedback, gestures, and higher-quality speaker hardware and software.

While modern MacBooks clearly outpace the PowerBook 540c in terms of specs—with a higher-res display, a much more powerful processor, and more RAM and storage—the same ambition we saw from Apple when creating the 540c is still present in 2023 MacBooks.

Modern MacBooks continue to impress with industry firsts, like Apple’s Silicon chips, and legendary features like insanely long battery life and crisp, vibrant Liquid Retina XDR displays. Thiry years from now, when Redditors are dissecting how well Apple’s 2023 Macs held up, one wonders if they'll be still be using the PowerBook 540c as a measuring stick for innovation